Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Solstice on the High Seas

I can't remember if I've mentioned that the crew of s/v Don Quixote are pagans. Sorta. Actually, we are not a particularly religious group, but if we had to pick a religion it would most likely be environmental paganism. One of the many objectives for the trip that appears to be going bye bye was for us to get a bit more serious about this whole paganism thing. So far, we haven't made much progress.

The one holiday we do manage to celebrate with some degree of consistency each year is Yule. Also known as Winter Solstice, Yule is a new year celebration. If you have a scientific bent, it is a celebration of the longest night of the year, the shortest day, and the loop of the sun out of winter and towards spring. Those feeling more poetic can describe it as the death and re-birth of the Sun God.

Yule has been around for a very long time. Most of the traditions associated with the holiday are similar to the Christian holiday of Christmas that consumes the second half of December. Pagans and Christians can get into all sorts of chicken-and-egg battles over the various trappings of the end of year celebration; It does no good for a functional religious illiterate such as myself to weigh in on the subject. There are many great resources on the subject online if you care to do the research.

Probably the important thing to remember is that almost every major cultural group in the world finds a way to celebrate the longest night of the year and many of the activities we associate with Christmas pre-date the Christian church by hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of years. For example, the "Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice with a festival called Saturnalia during which they decked their houses with boughs of evergreen trees and bushes. People gave each other presents, and all normal business was suspended and social distinctions were forgotten. Servants and slaves were given a feast by their masters who waited the tables. The Pagan Saxons celebrated the feast of Yule with plenty of ale and blazing fires, of which our Yule log is the last relic."* The Egyptians had some complicated Isis thing going on where she mourned the sun, and then the priests would come out in the middle of the night yelling about virgins and babies. But if you think that's weird, the one that makes me chuckle is a post-WWII Japanese tradition of waiting in line at KFC to get a bucket of fried chicken to feed the kids on the night that Uncle Chimney shows up with a million presents.

Of all the traditions, s/v Don Quixote's celebration is most like that of the Japanese. Traditionally, we would get a pizza delivered at about sunset. We "put out the hearth fires" by turning off the heat and all the lights. We gathered around a table in the living room, lit candles to the four elements as well a symbolic central home fire. We then wrote our regrets on small pieces of paper which we burned in the central flame. With no small amount of solemnity and giggling, we then put out the last of our hearth fires for the previous year, blowing out all the candles and plunging the family into darkness. Not even an ember carried our regrets into the new year. Every one settled down on cushions in the living room to sleep together until morning. At dawn, we would drive out to the West Seattle overlook and greet the sun with sun cookies and ringing bells.

That was then. Now, we do it differently. First, we can't put out the home fires... if we turn off our masthead light we are both wildly illegal and prone to getting run into by a drunk panga driver. Also, we don't have a living room. Probably most significantly, dawn is just a whole lot earlier in Mexico. So changes are necessary.

This year, we spent the day kicking around Mazatlan. In the evening, we climbed to the El Faro Lighthouse at about dusk. We cast our circle, burned our regrets, talked about what we want to take into the new year, then doused our little candle with a glass of wine. Then we tripped back down the hill. In the morning, we greeted the dawn with bells. Typically for our family, dawn was hidden in clouds. If we wait for the sun, this family will never get the new year started.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Yule, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, the Conger family of s/v Don Quixote wish you a very healthy and happy new year. May you have fair winds, following seas, and the good fortune to enjoy the lights in the eyes of your loved ones.

* I found a great resource online about the history of Yule which I downloaded and quote from liberally. Unfortunately, the authors didn't put their names in the document, and I can't find it again to get the link. Such is the ephemeral and plagiaristic nature of the Internet.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dirty Panties in Paradise

Sewing Projects
Sewing Projects
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The air is soft, cool and dry drifting into our cabin through the open hatch and gently waking as it touches the exposed skin of my arms, legs and cheeks. With a quiet yawn and stretch, I creep out of our cabin and up the companionway to greet the dawn. It’s going to be a spectacular morning with just enough dust in the air to ensure glorious color. There is nothing between Don Quixote and the sunrise to spoil the view, so I fill the coffee grinder and move into the cockpit to manually grind morning smell into the air.

At which point I step on a pair of dirty, wet, little girl panties complete with poop smear. “God damn it. Dog GAMN IT!! Why the &*#$_(* is the cockpit full of filthy wet clothes!” bursts out of me in a high volume, strident screech fit to wake not only the family but the anchorage, the birds on the shore, and the dead. So begins a typical day of cruising life.

You’ve probably heard the cruising axiom, “Routine maintenance in exotic ports of call.” The Don Quixote version is “Dirty panties in paradise.” Everything that aggravates me about being a parent is compressed into a twenty by twenty foot space, heated to 90 degrees, and filled with sand and fish scales. Including my temper. I crossed an invisible line in the filth a week ago where I stopped cooking dinner, ceased having sex with my husband, and started sewing fanatically with a pair of Bose headphones and back issues of You Look Nice Today and Penny Arcade flowing at high volume through my synapses. My former employees will recognize this tactic as it very closely resembles my management days when I’d close the doors, crank the NiN, and stop answering voicemail, IRC, and email. This is the Toast equivalent of going on strike.

The problem is physics, specifically Boyle’s Gas law. As you compress the same number of atoms into a smaller space, they run into each other and the boundary more frequently and generate more heat than the equivalent number of atoms would in a larger space. A family in a spacious suburban home smacks each other around, uses the last bits of toilet paper without getting a new roll, and occasionally burns a hole in the hardwood with forbidden candles. Squeeze the same family into 14” town row in suburban Philadelphia, and the volume rises, the Italian gestures start to emerge, and the family begins to earn the sobriquet “passionate.” Now take that family and compress them into a big, plastic, floating milk carton, slap the lid on, then start taking bets how long it will take the friction inside to increase the surface temperature to a point where you can bake tortillas.

As a cruising family, we need to figure out ways to let each member release the pressure of tight quarters and intimate living. Yesterday, I left the boat entirely for a quilting bee and didn’t come back until it was dark. Ruth fed my family on Victory Cat demonstrating both the generosity of her soul and the obviousness of my desperation to those around me. An escape such as that requires planning and cooperation, friends in the anchorage, and a sympathetic spouse. I spent the day in detox, sipping limonadas, cutting quilt fabric, touring the beautiful home of an ex-pat, and stretching my mental and emotional muscles to unbind the clenching kinks of constant small irritations. I took some deep breaths and read a book for an hour. I drank a beer and watched a good movie. I relaxed down to my smallest toe -- the one on the left that I can bend out independently of all the others a la a Vulcan greeting and therewith completely gross out the average six year old.

Hardware Sit
Hardware Sit
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
DrC picked me up just after sunset to drive me back to the boat. Unusually, the water in the Mogote was calm, the wind light, Venus and Jupiter brightly aligned in an upside frown in the eastern sky. My skirt blew gently around my ankles as I told my loving spouse about my day and praised him for his progress on the hookah and water maker. The mast speared up through the water complete with white Christmas lights, and Dulcinea greeted me with purrs and meows of welcome on the transom. I handed DrC up my sewing machine as I disembarked, talking animatedly about my progress on a scrape quilt.

At which point, I knocked over a half open bag of trash, tripped over the hydraulic line for the water maker and damn near knocked myself out as I fell into the pile of dirty dishes stacked two feet deep in the microdot piece of shit we call a sink. “God damn it. Dog GAMN IT!! Why the &*#$_(* is the sink full of filthy dishes!”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Apologies for Skip Day

I Lost a Tooth!
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
We sailed to Mazatlan safely, picked up my mother, and promptly moved the boat to an area where Internet connectivity is non-existent. Generally, I try to plan ahead and have a bunch o’articles in the queue so that there is no gap in the publishing schedule. This time I screwed up. If this connection holds long enough, I'll get articles in the queue to last till Zihautenejo. Fingers crossed!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Our La Paz To Do List

Toasting Our Water Maker
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
La Paz was our longest stop since we left Seattle. We had a very long list of things we were going to get accomplished. We always have a very long list. As usual, DrC was the most productive while the girls barely managed to keep their rooms clean. However, we did manage to tick off several large items:

DrC To Do
[X] Watermaker - It’s now fully functional - 30 gallons per hour on the port engine.
[X] Hookah - We picked up a used on for $400.
[X] Soap - More lemon scent this time but too many orange crayons.
[_] HAM licensing - We still haven’t gotten our Mexican credentials.

Toast To Do
[X] DocuSign v2.5 - Another release for my client. It looks like they are going to want me to do more work for them in the future, which is nice. We’re increasingly looking at staying out here till the economy gets it’s collective ass out of hock -- which may take a very long time.
[X] Skirts - Made one for myself and got the fabric for Mera and Aeron. Jaime “doesn’t wear dresses anymore.”
[X] Scout Troop - We had our first meeting. I still need to finish the materials and ship them to all the rest of the boats interested in participating.
[_] Solstice Gifts - Progress made, but I’m not done. Mom is bringing one of the bits I need to finish. I also need to figure out how to make a shirt for DrC since that’s what he asked for. Gah.
[_] Fix Sail Cover - Gah squared. The seams are slowly unraveling. They come undone at roughly the same speed I fix them. By the time all is said and done, I will have hand sewn the entire thing from one end to the other.
[_] Helm Covers - Didn’t finish the covers, because I kept breaking needles. I’m going to try using the new machine Aeron bought for me before I give up on doing my own canvas work. She picked it up in a silent auction for $200 pesos at the subasta. Like ancient toasters, this old Elna looks indestructible, and the motor is so powerful the boat shakes when you engage it.

Girls To Do
[X] Switch Rooms - Mera is now in the V-berth while Jaime and Aeron share the double. This was dramatic and horrid. Jaime screamed, kicked, cried, and basically imploded. The process resulting three bags of “give away” and four bags of trash. The pack rat gene runs strong in Dean’s children. Jaime is gradually recovering.
[X] Play - The kids met four additional kid boats, expanding our list of folks we pal around with.
[X] School - We stayed roughly on target for school while we were here despite all the distractions.
[_] Solstice Gifts - They got started, but they haven’t finished either. Some stocking stuffers have been found and squirreled away on the boat.
[_] Decorate Dinghy - As an antitheft measure, the girls are assigned to paint the dinghy and motor. We’re holding off on this project as we are considering buying a larger engine. Wouldn’t do to paint it green with orange polka dots if we’re not keeping it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Day in La Paz

Etosha at Coffee and Cookies
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
La Paz, BCS, Mexico is an acknowledged mecca for the cruising sailor. It’s not that this is the most stunningly beautiful place in Mexico, nor will you find the cheapest goods, the best services, or the most comfortable anchorage. La Paz attracts cruisers because La Paz is full of a berzillion and one cruisers already, and a good fraction of the community and businesses have evolved to provide support for those afloat.

For example, you could live full time in La Paz and never own a phone; All you need is a powerful VHF. In the morning at 7:30AM on 21a you can listen to the Bill and Pepe Political show. This is your opportunity to discuss the latest news: political, economic, local, US and international. The participants range from libertarian and conservative to hippies living the good life. The conversations drift from the fluctuations of the Dow to how the new hotels on the Mogote are going to process their shit.

At 8:00AM, switch to 22a where you can get all the rest of the news that’s fit to print. Tides, weather, lost and found, arrivals and departures, Bay Watch, local assistance. During the morning net, you can find a diesel mechanic, trade your unwanted items for “coconuts,” and learn about the day’s activities. The cruisers organize daily yoga sessions as well as weekly Alcoholics Anonymous, dominos, blues jam, and quilting meetings. Do you need to find cranberry sauce? Want a part brought down from the United States? Looking for crew to go to Mazatlan next week? The morning net is your opportunity to find it.

Then you go to Club Cruceros in the Marina de La Paz at 9:30AM for coffee and cookies. The club includes a really well stocked book for book exchange as well as adverts for just about everything you might be looking for in terms of shops, technicians, and mechanics. It’s hard to get out of there in less than an hour. The girls love the place not just because there is a small playground to one side. And the cookies.

After coffee, head into town to the market. My daily rounds include the bank, fabric store, municipal market for fruit and vegetables, mercado for milk and packaged goods, carnaceria, pescaria, and tortilleria. My last stop is always the panaderia where I pick up a bag full of pan dulces and big soft white bread rolls. My whirlwind tour through the markets usually costs me about $20 USD for two days of food. I’m still having trouble getting over how cheap food is in Mexico... as long as you eat local.

We spend most afternoons on the boat doing chores, sewing, school, putting the water maker together. In the evening, we’ll go into town to play dominos and exchange email. I’d like to say that Internet is great in the anchorage, because technically it is. You have to pay for it though and we were too cheap. Stupid. In retrospect, I regret not plunking down the $30/month to get Internet out here on the hook from BahiaNet. Lesson learned.

Other useful bits to know about La Paz:
Both sunrises and sunsets are simply gorgeous nearly every day.
Theft is rampant. Anything not tied down will get stolen. Do not leave your stuff lying around anywhere, even on the deck of your boat.
Two weeks in Mexico and 65 degrees at night is going to feel really cold. Don’t ditch the blankets as you cross the border.
Fabric is cheap and abundant, at least here in La Paz. People still sew here. However, do not expect to find all that wonderful quilter’s cotton you find in the States. Down here, the fabric is for clothes. So the stores are stocked with muslims, linens, polyester blends, and all the notions you can possibly stuff into your cubby on board.
The much balloyhoo’d La Paz Waltz out in the El Mogote anchorage should not scare any experienced cruiser. Anchor your boat with lots of scope and a good clearance to your neighbors, set it hard and deep, and drift around. Particularly anyone who has anchored in the Pacific Northwest with routine tidal swings and currents of 2 or more knots will not find it particularly challenging.
Sunrise in La Paz
Sunrise in La Paz
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The best free Internet in the city is at Ciao Molina across from Marina de La Paz. 20 pesos for a limonado or 28 for a beer, and they’ll let you sit for hours. The meatball sandwich is also surprisingly good.

We go to bed early here. We get up early too. The days are short as Winter Solstice approaches, and the temperatures are dropping. Today, we move into the marina for a day of clean up and provisioning before heading across the Sea of Cortez to the mainland. I can readily understand the bungee appeal of La Paz that brings cruisers back again and again. We will no doubt swing through in April. The trick is not to get seduced into staying long enough for the barnacles to form.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Coals to Newcastle

Just Once
Just Once
Uploaded by toastfloats, taken by FIL George.
“Blow holes at eleven o’clock,” Grandpa George calls from the helm. DrC lifts his head from his book and looks around, the girls scramble up from their cabins. Humps and fins at eleven were only the start. Within minutes, the crew spotted signs of whale in every cardinal direction.

We were entering Monterey Bay. The weather had been lovely all day, though the wind chose not to pick up until mid-afternoon. With the spinnaker finally flying, we were enjoying a pleasant downwind sail into Monterey Harbor, looking forward to a layover day in that famous California coastal town.

The whales provided quite a show. Huge humped backs mounded through the waves. Large spumes of air signaled the direction to point eyes, binoculars and cameras, fins and flukes slapped the water to get our attention.

At one point, I shouted, “Forward!” It’s all I could say as a humpback leaped out of the water roughly ten yards off the port bow, landing with a thunderous splash that sent spume up onto the bows and on to the faces of my gaping children. “Grab a line!” DrC and George both shouted. We all dived for a hand-hold in case the whale decided to take on a catamaran. The enormous mammal chose instead to slide a few feet past the port beam, leaving a fuming wake of bubbles and gratefully astonished sailors. I said shakily, “That was an amazing experience... one I might not want to repeat.”

Our bow whale only punctuated a day full of Discovery Channel moments. Seagulls spent the day playing tag with Don Quixote as they dove on our bait, drafted in our wind wake, and hitched the occasional ride on the bow. Mera whiled away several hours sitting in a bow seat counting jelly fish. DrC caught a mackerel and, after much discussion and many pictures, the family decided it was insufficiently tasty eating and threw it back. We barked at sea otters rolling in kelp, George took pictures of cormorants, pelicans, and other sea birds, and the girls tried to catch sight of plankton through a microscope. As we came into the harbor, we were greeted with the sight of hundreds of sea lions basking, barking and honking on the breakwater.

At sunset, we settled down to a bobbing anchor with curry, rice and mangos. Grandpa George finished his lesson on Hinduism as DrC and I finished our last sips of wine before stirring the wasp nest that is our family preparing for bed each night. Grandpa asked the table, “So girls! What should we do tomorrow in Monterey?”

Three girls chimed harmoniously, “Let’s go to the aquarium!!” DrC smiled, I shrugged, and George laughed. “Okay! Let’s go see some sea life.”
Uploaded by toastfloats, taken by FIL George.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Don Quixote on the Cover of Latitude 38

Haven't seen this in person. Thanks to all those folks who have brought my attention to the magazine, though. Tim of Victory Cat said he'd bring us a copy... for the archive. Next stop is to get them to start printing stuff I write. Heh. I can dream, right?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Drunken Stupor Observations

Uploaded by toastfloats.
Actually, I’m not as inebriated as I’d like to be. If I were, I suppose I wouldn’t be able to feel the tips of my fingers and typing would become impossible. On the other hand, maybe as a technical writer, typing has become so integral to my existence that I can accomplish the task in any mental state. You hear of musicians, for example, who are capable of feats of tremendous virtuosity even when high on all sorts of illegal substances. So too might I, a technical writer, be highly capable of producing wit and grammatically correct prose after consuming multiple alcoholic beverages.

Alternatively, spellcheck is saving my ass.

Without sober reflection, here are my observations on the cruising life:

I really want a bath. I miss bathing. I miss the little ritual of asking DrC if I can take an hour to bathe, heading for the bath, locking the door. I would turn the spigot on hot hot hot, drop in half a Lush bath bomb, and sink in. I’d take a good book, preferably one with very little character development and a great deal of hot, uninhibited sex on moors, in closets and pressed on the stairs to the second floor. My flesh would turn pink, then red, and my head would spin as I stepped out of the tub. DrC would be ready with a cold glass of water, knowing I’d spent too long in the hot water, dehydrated, and was about to pass out. Then I’d flop like a stranded fish on my bed, too hot to cover myself with clothes or bedding, the cool night air chilling my heated skin while my head swam and spun in delicious slow whirls until I’d fall to a limp, warm sleep.

I’d like my boat better if it didn’t move all the time. When you’re slightly drunk and your head is two sips short of a complete spin, it would be nice if the ground didn’t move. The movement, the sloshy sounds, the honking of the sea lions on the nearby breakwater, combine to make me feel considerably more intoxicated than I should be forced to feel after such a small quantity of wine and large quantity of tasty pork and vegetable curry.

I’d like my family better if they stopped arguing with me. There is a Rule. It’s like the Rule of Three, I suppose, a guideline for better living. Not like running a stop light... more like shutting off the lights before leaving the house. The Rule is that if three or more people have the same problem with you, the problem is you not them and you need to fix it yourself. So I have a really big problem with my family which causes me to yell at them all the time. The problem is that I want a clean, healthy, safe environment, and they want to live like pigs with a self-immolation complex. The whole place would smell like a Saturday morning bacon fry if I let them live like they apparently want to. This is my problem. I must fix it. I think a good start would be to adopt a more carnivorous approach to life.

Spore is not an educational game no matter how much we want it to be so. I’m sorry; As a homeschool parent, you can not justify the purchase of this game as an educational expense. It’s a great deal of fun, and I recommend it highly, but we all need to stop pretending we’re learning more about evolution and societal development by playing it.

I shouldn’t miss friends I’ve only known for a few weeks, but I do anyway. I miss s/v Wish and s/v Carasan. I want to spend more time with s/v Walking on Water and s/v Tango. I miss Ted and Sue of s/v Indigo so much it hurts. I miss s/v Rubber Duckies, with their great attitude and wonderful children. I miss Laureen and Jason and Behan in a way that strikes to the heart of what I am. There are boats ahead of me with more wonderful people, but part of me is afraid to meet them. I am not sure I’m cut out for this love ‘em and leave ‘em approach to friendships. In the real world, I made friends by the decade: Joe and Alex in one, Jim and Keet in another, Kristina and Joann in a third. Now I make them monthly, but it’s hard to feel right about the transient nature of these relationships. DrC was probably right: I’m ideally cut out for monogamy. I didn’t believe him at the time, but 20 years and counting suggests that once again he was right and I was wrong.

Finally, I have decided not to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Last year, I used it as a grand excuse to write “go look at my prior great art” posts. I think that would have been acceptable had I simultaneously either produced a great work of fiction or -- alternatively -- merely spun out 50,000 words of drivel for future use on this blog. Since I did neither, it was a complete cop out. This year -- starting October 1 -- I started pounding out 50,000 words of blog content with nary a pause in the delivery schedule. Never mind the why, I don’t plan on changing the delivery schedule to the blog any time soon.

And with that, I get to sign off. 923 words later, I feel as though I’ve not only exercised my wine soaked demons, but also made significant progress towards my 50,000 word objective.
My Posse
My Posse
Uploaded by toastfloats